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A Guide To Japanese Public Holidays & Celebrations

Discover the pros and cons of visiting during a Japanese public holiday.
A Guide To Japanese Public Holidays & Celebrations
Selena Hoy

Japanese public holidays can be fun, relaxing, cultural, or spiritual, but they can also throw a wrench in your vacation plans if you encounter them unexpectedly. US and Japanese holidays rarely align, and they’re celebrated differently too. Whether you’re dancing in the streets, racing around a theme park, or spending a moment in quiet contemplation at a temple, knowing what to expect—and planning ahead—will ensure a smoother trip.

General Japanese holidays

Bank holidays are sprinkled liberally around the Japanese calendar. On these days you can expect schools, companies, government offices, banks, and the post office to be closed. Generally, you can expect more people in theme parks, in museums, and in the shopping malls. If a holiday falls on a museum’s usual day off (often Monday), you can expect the museum to be open on the holiday and closed instead on the following day.

New Year’s Day: Jan 1
Coming of Age Day (Seijin no Hi): Second Monday of January
National Foundation Day (Kenkoku Kinen): Feb 11
Vernal Equinox Day (Shunbun no Hi): Mar 21
Showa Day (Showa no Hi): Apr 29
Constitution Memorial Day (Kenpo Kinenbi): May 3
Greenery Day (Midori no Hi): May 4
Children’s Day (Kodomo no hi): May 5
Marine Day/Ocean Day (Umi no Hi): Third Monday of July, except Thursday July 23 in 2020
Mountain Day (Yama no Hi): Aug 11
Respect for the Aged Day (Keiro no Hi): Third Monday of September
Autumnal Equinox Day: Sep 23
Health and Sports Day (Taiiku no Hi) : Second Monday of October
Culture Day (Bunka no Hi): Nov 3
Labor Thanksgiving Day (Kinro Kansha no Hi): Nov 23

Until 2018, Japan also celebrated the emperor’s birthday on December 23 as a national holiday. In 2019, with the abdication of the Heisei emperor and the ascension of the Reiwa emperor, December 23 is not celebrated, but was replaced by Coronation Day on May 1 and Enthronement Day on October 22 as national holidays celebrated at the Imperial Palace. From 2020, the new emperor’s birthday will be celebrated as a national holiday on February 23.

In addition to the double handful of national holidays, there are three major holiday periods that travelers to Japan should keep in mind. These periods, called renkyuu, or holidays-in-a-row, call for extra planning.

Winter holidays

What to expect

Unlike in the States, where Christmas reigns supreme, December 25 barely registers a blip in Japan. Stores do decorate, and Kentucky Fried Chicken does a brisk business selling holiday buckets to go with the Christmas strawberry shortcake. However, most Japanese people do not exchange gifts, and in workplaces, it’s business as usual with no closures or days off. Rather than being a holiday for families, Christmas is instead a popular date night for couples and is sometimes used as a theme for year-end gatherings called bonenkai, or forget-the-year parties.

Instead, the major holiday in Japan is New Year’s Day, and the days immediately surrounding. Companies are generally closed from December 29 until January 3, allowing people to spend time with their families. Many people take a few more days off, depending on when the weekends fall. This period is spent relaxing at home, decorating with bamboo and grass wreaths, eating traditional food called osechi-ryori, exchanging New Year cards with zodiac animal motifs, and visiting relatives. Children receive gifts of money in special envelopes called otoshidama, and traditional new year games include playing with wooden tops and karuta cards.

What’s closed/open

The days surrounding the new year are dedicated family time, and many people make their way to their hometowns to ring in the new year. More than any other time of the year, you can expect things to be closed: banks, stores, museums, government and post offices, and companies will likely be shut during this period. Banks even sometimes shut their ATMs, though convenience store machines will still run.

What will be open: hotels, convenience stores, and some restaurants. Trains will run and some major attractions like ski resorts and Disneyland will remain open.


IMPORTANT! If you're heading to to Japan around Christmas/New Year's, and you'd like Journy to custom-build an itinerary for you, you need to request by December 8. This way, your personal trip designer has enough time to snag the best reservations, book activities, and build a mapped-out daily travel plan to make the most of your time.


Pros and cons of visiting during this time

The streets are quiet at this time of year, with many people at home with their families. If your goal is to hit a lot of attractions and soak up the big city buzz, this is not the best time to visit, and it’s advised to plan carefully in advance to make sure the things you want to see are, in fact, open. And of course if you travel with Journy, your personal trip designer will handle all of the planning for you to ensure you make the most of your time in Japan.

If you enjoy a slower pace with fewer crowds, though, this is an interesting period to visit. The new year is a deeply cultural and contemplative time, and there are several experiences you can have only at this time of year.

  • Illuminations

In the winter, many places put up elaborate light decorations called illuminations. These may be in a park, a shopping mall, or on a city street, and they are sometimes accompanied by an ice rink or even a European-style Christmas market. A favorite activity at this time of year is to bundle up, take a stroll among the twinkly lights, and stop for a toasty beverage along the way.

  • Hatsumode

One new year tradition is hatsumode, or the first shrine visit of the year. People flock to shrines at midnight on December 31 in order to pray for good fortune in the first moments of the new year. At major shrines, like Meiji Shrine in Tokyo or Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, the crowds are thick, with the priests offering prayers and selling protective amulets for luck and health in the new year.

Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan
  • Fuku-bukuro

While Japan doesn’t have Black Friday, it does have fukubukuro. Meaning “lucky bag,” these grab bags are sold in the first days of the year by department stores and large brands. Stores clear out their inventory by putting an assortment of items together at deeply discounted prices. Discounts can go up to 90%, and the bags are so popular that they often sell out in hours—but don't worry! When you travel with Journy, your personal trip designer will include a hand-picked list of the best spots to snag a lucky grab bag before they're gone.

READ MORE: The Best Souvenirs You Can Only Buy In Japan

Golden Week

On Children's Day (May 5), you'll often see carp streamers flying over rice fields and from balconies throughout the country. They're meant to represent health, vigor, and strength. | Shimamoto, Osaka | Japanexpertna

What to expect

Golden Week is a string of holidays in the spring consisting of Showa Day on April 29 (honoring the birth of Japanese emperor showa, aka Hirohito), Constitution Memorial Day on May 3, Greenery Day on May 4, and Children’s Day on May 5. With the help of an intervening weekend, many people take off one or two extra days and get a whole week off.

The Golden Week holiday (or GW as it’s also known) is the only renkyuu with no expectation that people should visit their hometowns, and so it’s a major travel holiday. What this means, in practice, is that hotels, flights, trains, and attractions are all booked to the hilt. The weather tends to be nice, and gardens, museums, and theme parks are stuffed with crowds.

What’s closed/open

Many companies and offices are either closed or on a shoestring staff during Golden Week, except for those businesses in the service industry. Hotels, restaurants, and shops are all operating full bore to cater to the holidaymakers. It’s extremely important, for this season, to make advance bookings as Golden Week reservations are often booked out six months or even a year in advance.

Pros and cons of visiting during this time

Golden Week is probably the most crowded time of the year in tourism, so if masses of people aren’t your thing, it’s better to book at another time, or at the very least, plan to visit less popular destinations during this week.

On the flipside, there’s a spirit of lightness and fun pervading the country during Golden Week, as families and overworked employees try to squeeze a whole year of fun into a single week. There are also some fun festivals attached to the holidays: on Greenery Day, many people visit parks and gardens, while on Children’s Day, you’ll see the koi-nobori, colorful carp streamers strung outside houses and in parks to celebrate boys (girls have their own holiday, Hina Matsuri on March 3, where families with girls decorate with dolls).

Obon

What to expect

Obon is a festival during the summer dedicated to remembering the dead. The festival is held from the 13th to 15th of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, so in most places, this means August, though some locales use the solar calendar and thus celebrate in July. Even though these are not national holidays, many companies give their employees a few days off during this obon period, as people are expected to return to their hometowns and visit the family grave.

What’s closed/open

Many offices and schools will close for a few days during obon. Family-run businesses may also close down during this time.

Most stores, banks, government offices, and attractions will be open as usual.

Pros and cons of visiting during this time

Expect crowds this week, as Japanese people visit family and go on outings together. Trains especially may be busy.

There are numerous festivals and traditions during obon. Festivals are held by towns, neighborhoods, or individual temples. During the festivals, people dress up in light summer kimono called yukata, and there are special parades and dances where everyone is encouraged to join in. Taiko drummers and flutists accompany the dancers, and the streets are lined with stalls selling food like takoyaki, yakisoba, shaved ice, and cotton candy. Remembering the ancestors is not a solemn event, but rather a joyous one, and participating in an obon festival is one of the greatest Japan experiences.


Still can't decide what time of year to travel to Japan?

Schedule a free, 15-minute call with an expert to get more advice on when to go and how long to spend in each place.

And if you have your dates set but don't know how to start planning, well, leave it to Journy. We'll plan your dream trip, built from scratch just for you. Just take Journy traveler Jasmine Nobis-Olson's word for it.

Sensō-ji, Taitō-ku, Japan
inspiration
7 November 2019
8 min read

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